Originally created 02/07/98

Let the Games Begin



NAGANO, Japan -- With the pageantry and flash the world has come to expect, the last Winter Olympics of the 20th Century officially opened in the Japanese Alps today.

For the next 16 days the Games belong to the athletes who have come from around the world to prove who is the best at each of the 68 events in seven sports.

The opening ceremonies of the biggest Winter Games ever dazzled the 50,000 people in the stadium and millions more watching around the world. From the first solemn bongs of the Zenkoji Temple bell to the final strains of Beethoven's Ode to Joy, the festivities were a delight to eye, ear and spirit.

The opening of the first Winter Games in Asia in 26 years was designed to unite East and West, old and new, young and old. The organizers never missed a chance to remind viewers of the long history and tradition of Japan while blending in a mind-bending display of technology.

In a morning full of highlights, two that seemed to please the crowd most were the lighting of the Olympic flame by Midori Ito, who won a figure skating silver medal for Japan in 1992, and the rousing performance of Beethoven's Ode to Joy.

Led by Seiji Ozawa, music director of the Boston Symphony, an orchestra and chorus in Nagano and choruses on five continents performed the music together while the crowd watched on three giant screens around the Minami Nagano Sports Park stadium. People in the stadium added their voices during a key phrase of the music.

The choruses in New York, Sydney, Australia, Berlin, Beijing and Cape Point, South Africa, were linked by a new satellite technology that eliminated the usual delay when signals are broadcast over a great distance.

During the music, 81 dancers ignited four kagaribi bonfires around the center stage while performing a ballet symbolizing the sporting events of the Winter Olympics.

Nagano organizers included the Beethoven music because more than 60 years ago the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, said he had been moved by Ode to Joy, and hoped it would be played at each Olympics.

Earlier, as the Olympic torch was carried in the stadium, a huge cheer went up that continued to swell until Mr. Ito lit the 20-foot diameter cauldron high atop the south end of the stadium. The flame will burn until the Games end Feb. 22. Mr. Ito was the last of 7,000 people to carry the Olympic torch across Japan.

Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko were on hand for opening, perhaps hoping to inspire the kind of performance the emperor's father sparked when he appeared at the Sapporo Games in 1972, the only other time the Winter Games have been held in Asia. Emperor Hirohito encouraged excellence in winter sports when he appeared. Those Games produced the nation's first-ever individual gold medal champion, Yukio Kasaya, who led an unprecedented sweep in small-hill ski jumping by his countrymen.

A traditional festival called Onbashira was used to symbolically prepare the stadium for the arrival of the athletes. Eight wooden pillars, each weighing two tons, were carried into the stadium by 1,000 chanting people from the area around Nagano. The pillars were erected to form four gates through which the athletes entered.

Then the stadium was cleansed of evil spirits by a grand champion sumo wrestler and 36 other top wrestlers. Akebono, born in Hawaii, is a yokozuna, the highest ranking grand champion sumo wrestler.

Wearing only a loin cloth and apron in the cold air he performed the traditional ring-entering ceremony, including shiko, or stamping on the earth to drive out evil.

Children also played a part in the ceremony, emphasizing the organizers' goal to show it is children who will play a key role in creating a new century filled with love and peace.

At one point more than 150 children dressed as Yukinko, or snow children, danced and sang on the field before the athletes began their long parade into the stadium.

With 2,339 athletes from 72 countries, this is the biggest Winter Games ever. Another 1,177 officials have been accredited, along with about 8,000 media personnel.

Led by Greece, the athletes entered the stadium in two groups, each nation led by a top sumo wrestler. Speed skater Eric Flaim carried the United States flag escorted by sumo wrestler Musashimaru and a group of junior high school students.

After a series of speeches, the Olympic flag was brought in, and Kenji Ogiwara, captain of the Japanese athletic delegation, took the oath of office on behalf of all athletes.

About 2,000 symbolic balloons shaped like doves were released with peace messages written by the children of Nagano attached.

It is thought some of the doves might even make it into the jet stream and ride across the Pacific before coming down in North America. Real doves were not used because they might freeze in the cold, mountain air. Then the combined choruses brought the ceremonies to a close.

As it did in the opening ceremonies, technology will play a key role throughout the Olympics, which cost Japan $11 billion to stage. There will be gadgets galore, from iris scanners to identify biathletes to in-ice microphones to Dick Tracy-style wristwatches that double as miniature cell phones.

"Technology is flourishing in Nagano," said Ko Yamaguchi, head of media for the local organizing committee.

Infrared sensors installed above the areas main roads are supposed to allow manipulation of traffic signals to provide smooth traffic flow. But the week before the Games began, traffic was snarled throughout the day in and around Nagano. Buses often ran late and packed beyond capacity. Organizers said that was because the full Olympic plan had not yet been put into effect.

"We learned our lessons from Atlanta," said Mr. Yamaguchi, referring to the technical glitches and traffic tieups that plagued the early part of the 1996 Olympics.

IBM has brought a crew of 300 to make sure its computers don't run into the kind of problems that brought its system for reporting results to a near standstill. "We've been building the system for Nagano for several years now," said June Namioka, program manager for IBM Japan.

The system is using the same hardware it built to create Big Blue, the computer that defeated world chess champion Gary Kasparov.

Most of the sumo wrestlers will be wearing flesh-colored heating adhesive strips to keep warm.